The Medieval Review 09.10.12

Kent, Dale. Friendship, Love, and Trust in Renaissance Florence. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2009. Pp. 268. $29.95 978-0-674-03137-1. .

Reviewed by:

Jamie Smith
Alma College

Friendship, Love, and Trust in Renaissance Florence is the publication of three lectures Dale Kent composed for the Bernard Berenson Lectures on the Italian Renaissance. In the genre of lectures, therefore, Kent presents not a traditional narrative for a monograph, but rather pieces together a vibrant patchwork quilt. Her reflections on Renaissance friendship pull together disparate topics-- artists, confraternities, godparents, notaries, poets, the Medici--which have all been the subjects of several specialist studies. However, since specialists do not always talk to each other, periodically someone should pause, gather, and reflect. Dale Kent is the ideal candidate to do this for Medici Florence.

The two main criticisms that Kent faces in this work are the impossibility of the sorting through the "rhetoric" to reveal the "truth" of emotions in the writings of Renaissance Florentines and the supposed incompatibility of friendship and patronage. Kent dismisses the first, conceding that those who try to impose modern definitions of friendship--ones that include "authenticity," "sincerity," and "disinterest"--will come up empty-handed. She argues that we should let the Florentines speak for themselves, allowing their definitions of friendship to guide us. The second objection is handled with similar reasoning. She agrees with the cynics who argue that scholars who try to distinguish true friendship from the obligations, patronage, and familial bonds face an impossible challenge. Therefore, she does not attempt to disentangle, but again, allows the Florentines to express themselves in their specific context.

In the first chapter, "What did friendship mean?", Kent provides vignettes of Florentine philosophizing (through letters, poems, visual arts) on the meaning of friendship, the mutual obligations and benefits pertaining therein, and the importance of the gift culture in publicly symbolizing a friendship. Kent allows the voices of the Renaissance to ruminate on the meaning of friendship by including ample quotations from letters and poems. Fully aware of the discussions of the Greeks and Romans before them, men like Leon Battista Alberti, Piero de' Medici, and Leonardo Bruni reflected on the idea of friendship and shared their thoughts with their friends (for those unfamiliar with prominent Renaissance Florentines, Kent provides an appendix of "dramatis personae"). The author does not neglect to include also the artists who visually represented friendship in their paintings. Important to this chapter is the association of friendship with the divine. While charity and patronage had long been associated with friendship, intercession and salvation were particularly Christian criteria. The connection between friendship with God and friendship with another human came through most clearly in the idea of patronage during the Renaissance. Here, Kent's intimate knowledge of the Medici makes her the ideal narrator, for the Medici family were the most famous and celebrated patrons of the Florentine Renaissance. Cosimo's position as intercessor for the Florentine people, an image created by the man himself and perpetuated by art and public demonstration, proved Cosimo to be the ultimate earthly friend and many sought shelter under his charitable wings. Kent argues that leading families of Florence saw themselves as equals to the Medici until the last decades of the fifteenth century, which makes the Florentine world different from other patronage societies in which there existed demonstrable inequality between patron and client. For instance, letters of recommendation both to and from Medici patrons reveal that the Medici participated in reciprocal relationships, currying favor from other patrons for their friends as much as bestowing hospitality upon friends of friends.

"Where did friends meet?" is the guiding question for Kent's second lecture in which she explores the physical spaces of meeting, the issue of class, and the roles of confraternities and godparents. Kent brings together anecdotal evidence for meeting places. Beyond listing the expected locations--piazze, churchyards, benches on streets, workshops, and taverns--Kent describes the kinds of interactions that occurred in these physical spaces. In the face-to-face communities that made up the Renaissance world, every day actions could take on added importance. For instance, Kent uses the example of Michele del Giogante to demonstrate the significance of neighborhood and friendship, upholding Aristotle's advice of cultivating friendships among vicini (those "nearest"). Michele is a colorful example; accountant by trade and popular singer, Michele lived in the same neighborhood as the Medici and enjoyed their patronage. He left descriptions of the places he would meet his friends and of the well-known meeting spots. In fact, there was one particular bench in the neighborhood that he called "the first seat." Another fascinating example would be the letters from the notary Ser Alesso Pelli who handled not only the legal dealings for the Medici, but also practiced information gathering and sharing for his client/patron (in this case, the relationship fit both descriptions). Closely tied to the idea of neighborhood friendship is that of godparentage, for many of the godparents chosen for Renaissance children reflected the close physical ties, not just political or financial ones, of the parents. Godparentage also invoked the image of the divine in friendship, a hallmark of Renaissance friendship.

The issues of trust and betrayal govern the third and last chapter. "Could friends be trusted?" addresses one of the fundamental concerns of Renaissance Florentines. Kent introduces the chapter through the skeptical merchant, Giovanni Morelli who promoted the idea of testing a friend one hundred times before trusting him. The chapter is dominated, not unexpectedly, by the Medici and their struggles with loyalty. Readers familiar with the family will not be surprised that the author includes the famous story of the Pazzi conspiracy, which is perhaps the most dramatic example of a soured friendship. Kent leads the reader through the decades of decay and erosion between the two powerhouses that resulted in the assassination of Giuliano and wounding of Lorenzo in the cathedral in April of 1478. Yet, there were supporters who stood by the Medici at this time, as their families had done before during the Medici exile. She also highlights Piero de' Medici's failure at controlling the Medicean party, which many attributed to his inability to maintain and strengthen friendship ties. Since his father Cosimo had been able to represent himself as "first among equals," Florence had maintained the facade of liberty; without this finesse, it seemed to contemporaries that Medici tyranny ruled the city. Kent emphasizes the connection between the language of trust and the language of patronage, as found in letters, since both invoke the image of debtor and creditor and the parties in each situation referred to themselves as both debtor and creditor. She ends the chapter with the examples of friendship displayed by Marco Parenti towards his in-laws (Parenti struggled for years to win the exiled Strozzi family forgiveness from the Medici) and of the rare friendship between Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna.

Kent presents the friendship, love, and trust among Renaissance Florentine men as only someone with her intimate knowledge of the archives and years of experience could. Approaching Renaissance friendship, love, and trust as Kent has done has two immediate benefits. First, it weaves together the work of the past, showing us just how far we've come in Renaissance Studies. Second, her work can be used as a springboard for topics that are far from exhausted.